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Religion-Rwanda

Rwanda claims closed radio spread hatred

People pray inside an Evangelical restoration church on April 6, 2014, in Kigali, on the eve of the start of a national mourning period marking the 20th anniversary of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda.
People pray inside an Evangelical restoration church on April 6, 2014, in Kigali, on the eve of the start of a national mourning period marking the 20th anniversary of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. AFP PHOTO / SIMON MAINA

Rwandan government supporters have defended the closure of a Christian radio and the deportation of its American pastor. The fierce reaction to RFI’s report last week is emblematic of a broader cultural war in Rwanda, which has also affected religious practice.

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Anyone who has logged on RFI English's social media account in recent days, will have seen the stream of angry commentary sparked by the article No place for 'Amazing Grace' in Rwanda.

The article told the story of American Pastor Gregg Schoof, who was sent back to the United States, after criticising the government's decision to shut down his Amazing Grace FM radio station and church.

The radio's former manager Cassien Ntamuhanga told RFI that the station was shut because it was too outspoken. Ntamuhanga was jailed on treason charges in 2014 over what he says was his reluctance to take orders from the government. He fled three years later.

Foul play

Human rights groups have long accused Paul Kagame's government of clamping down on freedom of expression. However, some of his fiercest critics have defended the president's decision to take Amazing Grace FM off air, saying it denigrated women.

The Christian radio station fell foul of the law last year after airing a fiery sermon by local pastor Nicolas Niyibikora who labelled women "evil" and "prostitutes'".

"Amazing Grace was closed because it was misleading the public," John Bosco Kabera, Rwanda's police spokesperson, told RFI.

"The radio was abusing women, denigrating women. It was abusing other religions like Islam, so the radio was closed," he said.

Schoof, who had lived in Rwanda since 2003, lost an appeal in May against the government's media regulator in which he had tried to reopen his radio station. 

Despite Schoof's claims that the sermon had been taken out of context, women's rights groups saw things differently.

Hate speech and shutting up

In Rwanda's post-genocide society, any comments deemed hateful, dig up painful memories of the dehumanizing language that led to death on a horrifying scale.

But hate speech wasn't the radio's only sin. Observers say it also tried to impose a western agenda on a society, which doesn't look at controversy too well.

"The pastor did not understand the context in Rwanda, here people don't speak out," comments Laurent Munyandilikirwa of Rwanda's Observatory for Human Rights.

"In the United States, people can criticize the government. They do so in their sermons. They're not afraid to criticize a system, which fails to help the population and that's normal. But here it's different and that's why I think Pastor Schoof and Amazing Grace got into trouble," he told RFI.

Although Rwanda boasts of lifting thousands out of poverty, an FT investigation in August found that some statistics may have been manipulated.

For Munyandilikirwa, Schoof's expulsion and the shutdown of his Amazing Grace radio now "deprives people who are suffering of a voice." Government officials disagree.

Clipping church's wings

"People are free to worship in Rwanda," insists police spokesperson Kabera, despite a clampdown on hundreds of churches last year, including Schoof's.

These churches "posed a security risk even to their own worshippers," Kabera defends. "There has to be standards." 

The closures are part of the government's steps to oversee the religious community in this largely Christian nation of 12 million people.

Analysts say Kigali may be trying to limit the influence of protestant churches in bringing about change.

"The Rwandan government increasingly sees churches as politicised civil society actors," explains Phil Clark, a professor of International Politics at SOAS University, specializing in Africa.

"While the government severely restricted the space of Rwandan civil society, churches were largely untouched. That has now changed," he told RFI.

Since the 1994 genocide, Pentecostal churches have mushroomed across Kigali, benefitting from the tarnished image of the Roman Catholic Church, which allowed its parishes to become carnage sites for Hutu militias.

Yet some evangelical churches have also come under scrutiny for duping and preying on the faithful, often demanding huge financial offerings from their congregants. New government regulations now require pastors to be trained in theology to regulate clerical abuse.

Culture clash

"Within the Rwandan government, there is also concern about wealthy US-backed churches causing social divisions," continues Clark, especially on issues such as homosexuality and gender rights.

"The Amazing Grace FM case taps into that concern. Many of its broadcasts for instance challenged the government's pro-women stance and its position on freedom of speech," he said.

The station was established more than 10 years ago by Pastor Schoof as part of his saving mission in Rwanda. But the radio's woes and his own downfall suggest Schoof lost control of the public's perception of his work.

There may be a broader struggle at play, though.

Churches like Schoof's, which often preach a prosperity doctrine, are "at odds with the Rwandan Patriotic Front's message" that Rwandans need to work hard instead of relying on miracles, offers Clark.

The emotions surrounding "Amazing Grace FM, tap into these larger dynamics," he said.

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